Chinyere Vann examines her hands frequently, though they are rarely still. And while it was her Asian-African-American face that made her a child model for the Ford Agency for the past 10 years, her hands may be her best feature. With them, the 15-year-old plays the piano, dabbles in chess and commands a tennis game that is rated fifth among 16-and-under girls in the New York metropolitan area. With them, she hopes to someday become a surgeon—a hand surgeon, in fact. For the moment, though, the most notable thing about her hands is what they can do with a basketball.
Chinyere's shooting, dribbling and passing prowess is becoming legendary on the asphalt and hardwood courts of New York City. As a freshman at Brooklyn's Polytechnic Prep two seasons ago, the 5'10" guard was MVP of the girls' varsity, and last year she averaged 27 points and five assists for the 20-2 Blue Devils and set a school single-game scoring record of 50 points.
Her skills are also well known in Harlem's La Guardia Memorial House summer league, a showcase for New York's top schoolboy talent, in which Chinyere (pronounced CHAIN-eye-ear) is one of the youngest players, and the only girl. Coming off the bench for the Red Star team, Chinyere is averaging about 14 points a game. "When I saw her playing pickup ball last year and asked her to join the team, some of my players thought I was crazy," says New York playground guru and Red Star coach Rodney Parker. "But they quickly accepted her because she's a great player with great instincts. She has an enormous love for the game."
Chinyere's passion for hoops has deep roots: Her father, Teddy, wouldn't let his 11-year-old son, Kayode, play ball in their Brooklyn backyard unless three-year-old Chinyere got to play too. Chinyere later tagged along with her big brother, a future Georgetown player, to the playgrounds of Brooklyn and Manhattan, where she developed her head fakes, no-look passes and icy confidence. "The toughest playground is one you haven't been to before, where you have to prove yourself," she says. "But I like that challenge."
June 26, 1994
Chinyere has played on boys' school and recreation-league teams since fifth grade, but she had never played with other girls until her freshman year at Poly. "The girls' game has a different rhythm," she says. "They don't play as much transition as guys do, but it's still fun. It's almost like a social event." One day in May she won a tournament championship with the Poly Prep girls in the morning (she was named MVP) and another with her boys' YMCA team in the evening.
Chinyere packs so much into each day that she has already retired from two careers. In addition to being a model, she was a regular for seven years on Sesame Street, where she was shocked to learn that Big Bird was really just a small man who used his hand to work the beak. "That was pretty shattering for a little kid," she says.
With her acting and modeling days behind her, she sees at least three other potential careers looming before her. Besides becoming a hand surgeon—an interest she developed two years ago when a fractured right pinky forced her to learn to dribble and shoot with her left hand—she would like to try TV broadcasting. Of course, those jobs will have to wait until after she has finished playing for the New York Knicks.